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Seattle City Light customers question sudden jump in power bills

Seattle City Light bill comparison (Photo: KOMO News)

A Shoreline couple blames Seattle City Light's new electric metering system for shockingly high power bills. But City Light says the new meters are not generating inflated usage numbers.

In this case, it's a perfect storm of confusion- involving the switch to a computerized system called Advanced Metering, a backlogged new billing system, and the practice of estimating power usage instead of always reading old meters in person.

Ryan Floresca and his partner Seth Dunlap have a small, 2 bedroom, 1 bath home in Shoreline. It has fewer than 800 square feet of indoor living space.

The Shoreline couple says in their 3 years of owning the home, their typical Seattle City Light bills have come to about $150 to $200 every two months and they say they're extremely conscientious when it comes to conserving energy.

"We don't have heaters going. We turn out all our lights, We're really good about turning our lights off," said Dunlap.

But the bill they got in March was close to $700.

"I mean it was definitely sticker shock when we opened that envelope," said Dunlap

"We haven't done anything new," added Floresca. "So when I called and spoke with them, they said 'Oh, we did an estimated bill.'"

Unfortunately, the estimated bill in queston was hundreds of dollars off the mark.

Seattle City Light says the estimated January bill- which actually dropped from a previous bill of $164 during warmer Autumn months, to $132 dollars into November and December - should have been closer to $394.

To make things worse, Seattle City Light says it happened twice.

Adding to the confusion- while City Light was updating the couple's balance, the utility was also replacing Seth and Ryan's old electric meter with a new computerized meter which will track power usage automatically with no meter reader required. During that period, roughly 20 days of service was carried over to a later bill.

It took me nearly an hour on the phone with Seattle City Light to get it all figured out.

The company summarized the confusion in this written statement:

"In this case, two consecutive bills were issued based on estimates of the customer’s energy use. Both estimates were low at a time of year when energy consumption tends to rise significantly for most customers. That left an unpaid balance that carried forward until we completed an actual meter reading for the next billing cycle.

Additionally, between billing adjustments and a meter exchange, the revised December to February bill covered only 41 days. That meant the February to April bill covered 82 days of service, adding to the amount owed.

We recognize that such a large balance could be difficult to pay off at once. We can work with the customer to set up a payment plan."

"They blindsided us with this bill," said Floresca.

"We've only lived here three years," said Dunlap. "Are they going back to the very first day that we were here and saying, 'Oh, our estimate was incorrect from the very beginning?' "

Floresca and Dunlap still question the numbers, saying their bills have always been consistant until now.

But City Light says since records show they used the power they've been billed for- they're legally obligated to pay.

If you're utility bills are unusually high, or unusually low, be sure to compare the usage to the previous month.

Pay attention to the number of days being applied to the bill and if you still have an old meter, make note of whether the bill was estimated.

Seattle City Light says it's on schedule to have all it's new meters installed by the end of the year- and the new meters should elminate the need to estimate.

City Light customers who don't want advanced metering can opt-out of the new system provided they qualify, pay a special fee to set up a different account, and pay a monthly fee for meter reading.

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